Bill to protect Massachusetts pollinators advances

"bee" by David Elliott, used under CC BY

By Lindsey Vickers
BU News Service

BOSTON — Legislation designed to restrict the use of a popular pesticide that is harming the state’s bee population is moving forward after a successful Statehouse hearing.

The Legislature’s Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture voted this week to advance “An Act to Protect Pollinators” following the hearing last week.

Legislation was introduced in January and is sponsored by state Rep. Carolyn Dykema, D-Holliston. One key feature of the bill is more restrictions on neonicotinoid use, especially by those who are not professionals.

Neonicotinoids, or neonics, are insecticides that are chemically related to nicotine and are applied either to the soil or sprayed on plants. The insecticide gained traction due to its effectiveness, as well as the low toxicity to vertebrates.

However, recent research suggests that these pesticides are harmful to some pollinators, particularly bumblebees, which are about 2-3 times more sensitive to neonics’ toxicity than honeybees.

Nonetheless, neonics are the most widely used pesticide worldwide, but they have already been banned in some places, including across the European Union.

Pesticides are just one of a number of issues that face bees across the commonwealth. Mites are another major concern for beekeepers, according to Tom Fiore, president of the Middlesex County Beekeepers Association.

“Mites may be the biggest challenge, because these parasites not only injure individual bees, but they also make the bees more susceptible to viruses and other stressors, such as pesticides, that the colony might otherwise be able to resist,” Fiore said.

Massachusetts beekeepers reported an annual loss of just over half of honey bee colonies in the 2015-16 season. According to the Massachusetts Pollinator Protection Plan, this puts the commonwealth in the top 10% of states with highest losses in bees.

Yet bees are responsible for one in three bites of the food we eat, Dykema said.

Dykema’s proposal “offers a common-sense solution that works to limit (bees’ exposure) to harmful pesticides, while still recognizing the need for industry professionals to retain access to these products, with proper training and guidance,” she said.

Neonicotinoids aren’t the only threat that the legislation addresses. The bill also considers land and foraging space for native pollinators. Habitat protection is critical for bee conservation, according to Joan Milam, a research fellow at University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies native bees.

“Land conservation at the local, state, and federal levels is critical for bee conservation as (it) protect(s) bee habitat. Homeowners can live with bees, even with lawns, if they agree not to spray herbicides,” Milam said.

Dykema’s legislation would “require MassDOT to consider planting more forage along solar developments on state-owned land near highways, and the most recent update to the (Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target, or SMART) includes pollinator forage incentives for private development as well,” she said.

This act comes nearly two years after a previous bill, which was also sponsored by Dykema and targeted neonics use, failed to receive report out of the House Ways and Means Committee.

While the bill’s implementation could be months away, Dykema is hopeful. Meanwhile, next spring, residents who want to support native bee species should consider “planting native flowers that provide nectar and pollen required for bees to provision their nests,” Milam said.

This article was originally published in MetroWest Daily News.

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